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Homeless shelter a dominant topic at meeting

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Las Vegas City Schools Board

By Ryan Lowery

Residents who live in the areas near Legion Park Elementary School and Memorial Middle School crowded into the Las Vegas City School’s boardroom Thursday night.

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The Board of Education took public comment on a proposal by the City of Las Vegas to utilize unused school buildings as a temporary homeless shelter, should the nonprofit homeless shelter Samaritan House need to vacate its current location at 1000 Mills Ave.

According to Fire Chief Billy Montoya, in order to remain open, the Samaritan House needs upgrades to its fire safety system. Samaritan House has acquired a new facility at 501 Seventh St.; however, similar upgrades are needed at the new location before the state will allow the organization to house anyone at that facility.

The city is concerned Samaritan House may have to shut its doors before the new facility is ready, leaving many homeless Las Vegans with nowhere to go during the coldest months of the year.

The city recently learned that the Construction Industry Division is considering granting Samaritan House a 90-day extension, but Chief Montoya told those in attendance that even if the 90-day extension is granted, those living at Samaritan House could be forced out in late January, when temperatures are at or near their lowest.

Montoya called the idea to use Legion or Memorial as a shelter a backup plan.

“They’ve already acquired another facility located on Seventh Street,” he said. “If we can get them through these winter months, hopefully, by next winter, they will have that facility in compliance.”

Mayor Tonita Gurulé-Girón said there was a misconception that the city plans to make one of the former school buildings a permanent shelter. She assured those in attendance that was not her plan.

“We don’t want anybody freezing to death,” she said. “We are being compassionate to the people that we serve, including the homeless — they have rights too.”

Seven people addressed the board during a limited public input season. Only one was in favor of the board allowing one of its buildings to be used as a temporary shelter.

Carol Aragon, who lives near Legion Elementary, was not in favor and said she only recently learned of the city’s plan.

“No official had the courtesy — no, they didn’t have the decency to inform, much less, solicit input from the residence,” she said.

Aragon’s comments were met with thunderous applause from many in the room.

Gloria Stein, who recently moved to Las Vegas for a job at Alta Vista, raised concerns about the safety of single women who work odd hours.

“Had I known this would even be a possibility, I never would have bought this house,” she told the board. “I think it’s a very dangerous situation for those of us that are single women living in the area, and the older folks that are living in the area. I really think you need to consider this — in fact, I implore you not to let this happen.”

Realtor Bernadette Almanzar told the board that Legion Park Elementary is not properly zoned for housing a shelter.

“I think all of us are feeling discounted, dismissed and our opinions are not valid,” she said. “I was at a meeting two nights ago with Samaritan House. They were talking about the studies that have been done, that property values do not diminish. I don’t agree with that. I live in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Our real estate market is totally different than any part of the country.”

Almanzar said she thinks the city has other options, including emergency facilities that Samaritan House could be moved to temporarily.

“Samaritan House actually had no idea that the city was even contemplating that facility, so we can’t blame Samaritan House,” Almanzar said. “They’re doing a good job here, but our neighborhood does not need a drug rehabilitation center.”

She too received loud applause.

Mayor Gurulé-Girón told the audience that she lives in the Legion Park area and supports using the elementary school as a shelter on a temporary basis.

“And I’m not talking detox center. That’s another entirely different issue with different guidelines and different processes we have to go through. But I am not going to turn my back on the homeless.”

Some in the audience wanted to know if law enforcement patrols in the area would increase if Legion Park were used as a temporary shelter. No one from the police department attended the meeting to answer those questions.

Board member Gloria Lovato Pacheco said the director of Samaritan House told her that no one at Samaritan House had asked any third party to seek temporary housing for the shelter.

Mayor Gurulé-Girón walked toward the lectern, asking to address Lovato Pacheco’s comment, but some in the crowd told the mayor she couldn’t speak, with one man saying, “No, your time is up.”
Board President Dennis Romero called for order as the crowd noise rose.

“She was not part of public input. She was on the agenda. She’s allowed to speak,” Romero said.

“The statement that was stated here this evening by you, Ms. Lovato (Pacheco), is absolutely untrue,” Mayor Gurulé-Girón said. “The Samaritan House has been fully apprised of the issues that we have been dealing with, and they were also apprised during several meetings with our city manager and our chief of police that we were going to try to get temporary facilities, so there’s a lot of hearsay back and forth.”

Mayor Gurulé-Girón told the board that if Legion Park does in fact need to be rezoned, then the city will rezone it.

“We will do what is absolutely necessary to protect the interest of the homeless. They too have rights,” Gurulé-Girón said.

Someone in the audience then shouted, “What about our rights?”

The mayor added: “But again, the Samaritan House is fully apprised of what is going on, where the city manager has discussed this with them.”

Lovato Pacheco still disagreed with her.

“Madam Mayor, with all due respect, your city manager was there when their director said they had authorized no third parties to speak on their behalf,” she said.

When it came time for the board to make a decision on the matter, Superintendent Kelt Cooper said he didn’t have a specific recommendation.

“I understand that there are two good arguments,” he said.

Board Secretary Lucero addressed the fire chief, asking if Samaritan House’s new location on Seventh Street was up to fire code.

“No, sir. That’s where the next six months will come into play,” Chief Montoya said.

“That being said,” Lucero said, “I know because my brother is the contractor for Las Vegas City Schools that there’s no fire suppression system at Legion, so it wouldn’t make any sense for us to upgrade that if it’s just going to be a temporary (shelter). Wouldn’t that money better serve the new place?”

Many in the audience cheered and applauded.

Board member Lovato Pacheco pointed out that Legion Park does not have showers and that the bathrooms were designed for children in elementary school.

“Bathrooms would have to be retrofitted, the toilets are low, and there’s no showers,” she said. “It’s my understanding the city is willing to bring in portable showers and those kinds of things. Well, why don’t we take that money and help them with the Seventh Street location?”

Many in attendance applauded her comments.

“I think that we have to take care of our brothers and sisters no matter what the situation is, but I don’t think that location is the correct one,” Lovato Pacheco said.

Board Secretary Lucero motioned to table the discussion. With a 3-1 vote, the decision on the proposal was tabled. Board member Lovato Pacheco opposed tabling the matter.

“The community needs an answer,” she said. “They’re here because they’re trying to be proactive, and if the board postpones responses or action, by not saying ‘no’ or ‘yes,’ and continues the issue, the issue will grow, and grow. In my opinion, it’s in this board’s best interest, in the city’s best interest, Samaritan House’s best interest to have a response.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board:

  • Mentioned Nov. 15 as the approved date for the next regular meeting of the Board of Education.
  • Welcomed its student representative, Eliza M. Montoya, who was sworn in by Judge Gerald Baca.
  • Approved a renewal of membership with Walsh Gallegos for legal services.
  • Awarded plaques to the employees of the month.
  • Tabled a discussion on purchasing a new activities bus.
  • Discussed the district’s water rights. Superintendent Cooper told the board the federal government is trying to reclaim unused water rights. According to Cooper, the judicial court says the district had received multiple notifications regarding the district’s rights to water from the Gallinas River and Pecos River, but Cooper told the board the district received no such notices. Cooper says West Las Vegas Schools was noticed months ago, yet City Schools received no such notice.
  • Heard a report from the finance and audit committees.
  • Received updates on capital outlays.
  • Heard Superintendent Cooper’s report on personnel and programs within the district.